Julia Quinn’s books always seem to have a quirky element that makes them different. And I mean that in a good way. I’m trying to decide exactly what that is. It probably is a few different factors. She writes well, she has witty dialog between her lead characters, she lets her lovers get to know each other, and she sneaks in secondary characters that leave you wanting their story next. It sounds so easy. She makes it read so easy. But it is not. That my friends, is why her books work.

What Happens in London is her latest, and it features Olivia and Harry. Olivia is very lovely lady, but really has not found that special someone to wed. Harry meets her by chance and at first glance they do not really like each other. It probably doesn’t help that he thinks she is a beautiful twit and she’s heard gossip that he’s killed his fiancee. And it does not help that Olivia has taken to spying on him – since he’s next door – and has discovered he does have some secrets. Having your neighbor notice that you’re spying does make it a bit awkward the next time you meet them at a ball.

Harry does Russian translation for the British government and ends up being assigned to watch Olivia since her latest suitor seems to be a Russian prince that the government wants to watch. Hence, he ends up meeting with Olivia more than he ever intended. Their dialog of getting to know each other and to like each other – really sets this book apart.

Filled with a mix of various quiet scenes and some hilarity – the scene of Harry’s cousin enacting a Gothic novel for the Prince and the household is pretty funny – the future lovers grow to appreciate each other. And isn’t that what a romance is supposed to be about? A very good read.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett captures the reader with its profiles of black household help and the white women who relinquished the care of homes and children to them in the early 1960’s in Jackson Mississippi. The novel relates story after story of both careless cruelty and careful concern in a time that is not too long gone.

Three strong women are the backbones of the novel. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is home from college without a marriage proposal and hopes to be a writer. Coping with the loss of her own son, Aibileen is a black maid who is raising her seventeenth white child. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend who has no trouble saying what she feels and therefore is searching for a new job. Skeeter decides to write a series of interviews of black maids and entangles Aibileen and Minny in her work. The author draws the reader in with careful characterization. These three women have flaws but this only increases their believability and humanity.

The author writes from her experience since she was cherished by a black housekeeper, Demetrie, after her mother deserted the family. Born and raised in Jackson, Stockett loves her home state with true grit. She has lived this life and authenticity shines throughout its pages.

There is so much to this book to reflect upon. Book discussion groups will dissect it with piercing analysis. First of course is the civil rights movement that provides the core of the novel. It’s all here – separate toilets, lunch room sit-ins, King’s march on Washington and the murder of Medgar Evans. What mothers want from their daughters and what daughters really need is prominent. Skeeter is tall and has frizzy hair and her mother frets and worries that she will never have a ring on her finger. Body image, the need for the approval of men and the southern belle mentality of women all are present. The men adore their woman and are courteous and respectful but are easily manipulated. Lots of good old boy hunting trips keep the men sane.

Differences in the friendship of silver spoon white woman and the church going black women also become apparent. The white women have so much time to plot against one another with full radiant smiles. Cooking and cleaning is too much for them and the reader becomes exhausted just reading about the daily chores of the household help. The setting is southern and vivid descriptions of pies, cakes and fried chicken are present in mouth watering glory. The black maids seem to be there for one another and the warmth of their relationships lessens the tense tone. Amid the seriousness of the novel hopeful optimism prevails. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are strong and smart women but they are also capable of providing light moments and laughter.

I confidently recommend this inviting historical fiction novel for its thoughtful portrayal of the triumph of heart over hate.

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The Arcane Society continues in Amanda Quick’s The Perfect Poison. Quick (who is Jayne Ann Krentz) has written her sixth book in the series – the third historical one. And much to this reader’s joy – she keeps the excitement in the series. (Can I tell you how many times books within a long series, have clunkers through out because the author can not keep up the quality?) Finally Quick brings us Colin’s story. Colin Jones’ talent is a difficult one – he has a talent for strategy and making connections. He sees the patterns in his head and connects the dots so that the Society and his new project, Jones and Company can figure out what is going on in the battle for the founder’s formula. He doesn’t have Miss Lucinda Bromley in his pattern however.

Lucinda has a talent for botany – more specifically figuring out what botanic ingredients have been combined to create potions for good or for evil. She’s been helping a member of Scotland Yard, with various cases that involve poisons and she discovers that one of the ingredients she has figured out was stolen from her greenhouse. She decides to enlist Jones and Company to find out who the thief is and where is her plant. She also has a bit of a reputation – she is rumored to have poisoned her fiance, and wants things handled as quickly as possible. When they meet – they end up surprising each other – with their talents and intelligence. And when Colin figures out her thief is connected to his quest – the hunt is on.

Quick once again gives us great characters, with pithy dialogue and a roller coaster ride of a plot. And she brings us an excellent subplot of an Arcane Society matchmaker in action. (It would be fun to have her again in another book!) Along the way she manages to deftly fill in more details about the Jones family, the Arcane Society, their history, and their members’ talents. I can hardly wait for the next installment! A very good read!
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Murder On the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner is a wonderful book that combines history and mystery to produce a fun work of fiction. We are immersed from the beginning in the 1889 World Exposition in Paris. The entire city is focused on the new Eiffel Tower and the exposition. The joy and the excitement of going up to the viewing platforms has visitors in a frenzy. And when someone is murdered on the platform, the case makes front page news. But who would murder a maiden aunt taking her niece and nephews on an outing? Victor Legris, a young bookseller, is on the platform with newspaper friends when this happens and wants to find the culprit. And when more people start dying after visiting the viewing platforms and the exposition, he is determined to solve the case – even as his friends are turning into suspects.

The author (really a pen name for two lady booksellers in modern France) brings to life the Paris of the time, and Victor’s occupations as bookseller and book critic. Victor is a compelling character who is trying to be modern but finds he is more conservative than he thinks he is. With a cast of interesting secondary characters, the story allows us a brief glimpse into their world. And we had a wonderful time. A very fun read.

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Fun and pure entertainment, this film won not only audiences around the world with its grifts and cons, but it won the Academy over as well, taking home the Best Picture Oscar. Newman and Robert Redford are back together (after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, along with director George Roy Hill (also a Butch Cassidy alum), for some high stakes shenanigans. The duo play two small-time conmen looking for that one magic job that will move them into the “con” hall of fame and set them up for life. A clever script and great performances by all…including Robert Shaw as one of the con-ees…makes this movie one of the best in its class.

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I didn’t like Leatherheads much the first time I saw it. It’s a sweet film, but it’s uneven. Is it a sports film? Is it a romantic comedy? Is it a screwball comedy? Is it a period piece? Well, it is all three…plus more. Seeing it the first time, I didn’t like that about it. Seeing it a second time, I began to realize that no matter what type of movie it is, it’s a good film in all of its many genres. Clooney plays “Dodge,” an aging pro football player before pro football became what we know it today. Back in the 1920s, it was college football that was the King and pro was college’s illegitimate big brother. Pro games would be successful if they got a hundred or so people to show. College games would pack the stadiums. Unlike today, if you are a college football star, a future in professional football was not a good career move. Dodge took that path. And slowly watches as the other pro teams around him fall to bankruptcy. He sees a college football star, who also happens to be a war hero, as professional football’s last resort…a player who will come in and bring crowds with him. It works, but then it backfires, but then it works. Enter a reporter who is trying to take down said war hero and you have an interesting mix of characters and genres. It’s not the best movie of the year but it’s fun.

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All I had heard about this movie is that it’s about a man who gets younger, rather than older. And that is an important part of the film…but it is far from the crux of the film. The film, at its true heart, is a love story, which is well-done, not contrived and very well plotted. This surprised me for several reasons. David Fincher is not exactly the “go to” guy for your Hollywood love story. He’s a action/thriller/gritty/dark director who’s films always have an edge. Here, I feel Fincher’s edge is the fantasy of the aging backwards gimmick, since the love story he creates is simple and gentle…a touching masterpiece of on-screen romance. This is the type of love story you would see with Tracy and Hepburn…magical and real. It reminded me a little of William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, which, like this film is known more for another aspect of the film (in Wyler’s case, his movie is known more for being a comedy) than for the more touching, more vivid true sentiment of the film. Fincher’s fantasy aspect adds emphasis to the love story, just like Wyler’s comic aspects of Roman Holiday accentuate the doomed relationship between Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. In addition to this multi-layered story, the performances by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have never been better…especially Pitt, who convinces us every step of the way that he really is a man who was born old and will die young.

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OK — I LOVED the first one — Silent in the Grave — and this one is good, but somehow, it didn’t captivate me the first novel did. This one also features Lady Julia Gray and her PI cohort Brisbane — who have sort of a Victorian Maddie Hayes/David Addison relationship…meaning they are civil to each other at time, argue at times, claim they can’t stand the other and really just want to sleep together. This time, Julia, Brisbane, members of her family and some friends are snowbound in a castle retreat…and then one of the houseguests turns up murdered. Julia and Brisbane once again provide the right amount of sexual tension…without being too un-Victorian about it.

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